- Associated Press - Sunday, December 4, 2011

PITTSBURGH (AP) - The Pittsburgh Steelers played like they’re ready for December and beyond, making Cincinnati’s hot start a distant memory in the process.

Ben Roethlisberger passed for two touchdowns and set a team record for career completions as the Steelers crushed the error-prone Bengals 35-7 on Sunday.

Pittsburgh (9-3) swept the season series from Cincinnati (7-5) for the second straight year behind a 28-point explosion in the second quarter fueled by Roethlisberger, running back Rashard Mendenhall and a 60-yard punt return for a score by Antonio Brown.

Mendenhall and wide receiver Mike Wallace scored two touchdowns for the Steelers, who won for the seventh time in their last eight games.

Cincinnati rookie quarterback Andy Dalton threw for 124 yards and a touchdown to A.J. Green but the Bengals couldn’t overcome two turnovers and a handful of special team gaffes to all but end their hopes of winning the AFC North.

Cincinnati coach Marvin Lewis did little to downplay the game’s importance, practically admitting his team’s hopes for an outside shot at a divisional title would all but disappear if his surprising team couldn’t earn a split with the Steelers.

Thrust into the role of contender, the Bengals wilted in the spotlight, reverting back to the kind of mistakes they’ve avoided while rebuilding on the fly behind Dalton and Green. Cincinnati committed 10 penalties for 109 yards and offered little resistance when the defending AFC champions erupted with their best 15 minutes of football this season.

The Steelers have been a mixed bag at times this season, often playing to the level of their competition. They barely escaped woeful Kansas City with a win last Sunday night, raising concerns about Roethlisberger’s fractured right thumb and a defense nursing injuries to safety Troy Polamalu (concussion) and LaMarr Woodley (hamstring).

Roethlisberger, who aggravated the injury in practice during the week, overcame a slow start to complete 15 of 23 passes for 176 yards and the two scores to Wallace. His final completion, a 9-yard toss to tight end David Johnson in the fourth quarter, was the 2,026th of his career, one more than Hall of Famer Terry Bradshaw’s club record.

It was just part of a historic day for the Steelers. Wide receiver Hines Ward became the 19th player in NFL history to eclipse 12,000 career yards receiving while linebacker James Harrison collected three sacks for the second time this year.

The Bengals hung tough in a 24-17 loss to Pittsburgh three weeks ago, the kind of gritty performance that gave them hope they could earn a split with their division rivals and stay alive in their quest for a second division title in three seasons.

No chance.

Cincinnati’s miscues started early. The Bengals crisply drove down the field on their opening possession, but a 4-yard touchdown pass from Dalton to Jermaine Gresham was wiped out by a false start penalty on Green, who flinched ever so slightly just before the snap.

The Bengals settled for a Mike Nugent field goal only to have it called back after being flagged for delay of game. Nugent’s kick never had a shot the second time around. Rookie Cam Heyward swatted it out of harm’s way to record Pittsburgh’s first blocked kick since Sept. 10, 2009.

It’s as close as the Bengals would get to making it interesting.

Mendenhall, who has been erratic, gave the Steelers the lead with a 3-yard touchdown run early in the second quarter. He upped the lead to 14-0 with a nifty 5-yard cutback run, the 28th touchdown of his career, moving him into fifth on the team’s all-time list.

The Bengals continued to self-destruct on the ensuing kickoff. Pittsburgh’s Stevenson Sylvester stripped Brandon Tate and the Steelers recovered at the Cincinnati 23. Roethlisberger needed just three plays to hit Wallace for a 12-yard score to make it 21-0.

Dalton found Green for an 11-yard score to briefly give the Bengals life, but Brown extinguished any momentum with a scintillating punt return just before the half that gave the Steelers a 28-7 lead at the break.

The Bengals came in with an NFL-record three double-digit second half rallies, but not this time. Playing with a lead Pittsburgh’s defense teed off on Dalton, who was removed from the game in the fourth quarter as a protective measure by Lewis with the Bengals hopelessly behind.



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